Kentville, Nova Scotia. Sept 11, 2001
For twenty minutes we’d been battling a busy signal. My roommate and I were desperately trying to get through to the Red Cross, dialling and re-dialing the 800 number we’d heard on the radio, right after hearing that thousands of stranded passengers were being billeted in Nova Scotia.
“We have a swingset, dammit!” I shouted into the beeping phone. “We live in the woods. Give us people!”
Penelope and I had been wandering around in a helpless daze since we’d heard the news — crying, listening to CBC radio in the cluttered office of one of the faculty members of our college. Having rejected the history-free zone of CNN, which seemed to put more resources into its “America’s New War” logo than it had into researching how this situation had actually come to exist, it was the best we could do. Our families were far away, and we hadn’t settled into our new community enough to know where to put ourselves. We were almost relieved to hear that Camp Aldershot, the military base near our house, would be sent upwards of 900 people. Finally, somewhere to put our energy.
The two of us had lucked into spending the school year in a three-bedroom house built in the middle of a campground. If we had nothing else to offer the world in the aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Center, we had our house. Fed up with trying to call the base, we called a cab instead and headed over.
When we got there, none of the potential house guests seemed to know what “billeting” meant. As we invited person after person into our house, the response was always a slightly alarmed “No thank you,” often followed with “We don’t have any money.” We tried to explain, to no avail.
What we didn’t try to explain was that we felt useless and scared and that it would actually help us if they came over.
Eventually we met a man named Alan Spaulding who was eager to check his e-mail and glad to take us up on our offer. I was happy to learn that he was in the international division of the United Food and Commercial Workers union. It turned out we knew some of the same people. We dropped names, laughing and gossiping as we stood in a doorway at the camp, as though there was nothing unusual about the situation.
As the three of us waited for a cab, another man happened by, carrying a copy of Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone. He and Alan had met on the plane; they exchanged hellos. I told him that some people I knew had really liked She’s Come Undone, and that Penelope and I had a wood stove and extra rooms and that he should stay with us. He said his name was Richard Danzig. “Danzig. Like the band,” I remarked. He agreed to at least come by to get a break from the barracks.
What do you do with house guests who are strangers? When their country has just been attacked and, at that point, still unknown numbers of their citizens killed?
Well, if you’re us, you talk about third-wave feminism. And yourselves. And you roast marshmallows and wander through the woods and into your new town for dinner. You laugh a lot, too, and try (unsuccessfully) to avoid shooting your mouth off about how twenty years ago, the U.S. was funding bin Laden, as an ally against the Russians.
Both Richard and Alan were warm, and curious about our lives. We quickly became a kind of makeshift family; it didn’t seem strange at all that they were there. Since the World Trade Centre attacks had Changed Everything, it seemed entirely unremarkable that the end result of that change was that I now lived in the woods with a woman named Penelope, a union employee and a “lawyer on vacation” (how Richard described himself). No one knew when the re-routed travellers would be leaving, so it didn’t seem like they ever would.
It wasn’t until they’d been with us for a day that we realized that Richard’s stories of socializing with Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were probably not typical of your average American lawyer, even one who had written some books and taught at Stanford and Harvard. The afternoon of their second day with us, Alan said something along the lines of “I didn’t even realize who Richard was right away.” Penelope and I exchanged baffled looks but didn’t ask.
Later, when the two headed back to the camp to see if they could get any details on their flights, Penelope and I did a Web search for “Richard Danzig” and found this page, which began:
The Secretary of the Navy heads the Department of the Navy consisting today of 372,000 active duty and 90,000 Reserve Sailors, 172,000 active duty and 40,000 Reserve Marines, and, 198,000 civilians. Its annual budget is approximately $84 billion dollars. It has over 315 warships and 4,100 aircraft, four universities and a research, development, test and evaluation budget of nearly $9 billion.
We started to talk over each other:
“He was the Secretary of the U.S. Navy…”
“Under Bill Clinton…”
“I knew he was a Democrat!”
“It’s a political appointment, so it’s not like he’s military, right?”
“My god, it’s so weird.”
“My god, we’ve been talking about ourselves for the last twenty-four hours.”
“We’ve been talking about U.S. foreign policy for the last twenty-four hours.”
“We’re so stupid.”
“We’re so stupid.”
When Richard came back, we told him that we’d missed him so much we’d read his farewell speech on the Internet. He chuckled, said “You found that did you?” and that was all we said about it. Later on, when the Brigadier General of Nova Scotia called to try to arrange a private military flight back for Richard, we were pleased to hear Richard tell him that he’d like to take Alan, too, and, if that couldn’t be arranged, he’d be happy to stay with us in Kentville.
Later, when the call came that the U.S. wouldn’t give the Canadian military air clearance to fly the men back, we were secretly relieved they’d be staying a bit longer. Though their visit was a direct result of the attacks, their presence also suspended the reality of the situation.
At one point that day, as I sat on the swing, listening to my New Politics Initiative (NPI) conference call, I thought “Huh. The assistant to the Director of International Affairs for the UFCW is playing guitar in my living room, while the former Secretary of the U.S. Navy makes tea in the kitchen with my roommate. World War Three might be about to happen, and I’m sitting in my backyard.”
It seemed impossible and, also, utterly normal. The friendships we formed were strong, perhaps typical of the sorts formed in crisis situations. In the evening, when Richard received an e-mail from the Pentagon listing all his colleagues who had been killed, the house felt heavy and sad.
Later, both men would talk about the kindness and compassion they’d felt in Canada. But at the time, it felt like they were taking care of us, whether that meant buying our groceries (Richard had the cashier ask us if we were third-wave feminists and then doubled over in laughter when she did) or purchasing a house edition of Deluxe Yahtzee (played with many enthusiastic high-fives) or just listening to us talk about how terrified we were.
When they eventually left, two days later, we didn’t know what to do with ourselves in the quiet. That’s when we started reading newspapers again and listening to the radio. With the bubble of the micro-impact on our own lives broken, the macro-impact of September 11 surrounded us.
We kept in touch, but correspondence has slowed. I still sometimes make tea in the teapot they bought us as a thank-you gift, and Penelope and I each have a few books on our shelves sent by Richard when he got home. Every time I read and hear about September 11, my first thoughts are always of Alan and Richard — of unlikely friendships and instant community. Before I think of devastation and unjust war, I think of how quickly people can find common ground and a reason to look after each other.